Produced by Jet Leang Dance Theatre
Choreographed by Jet Leang (Malaysia) and Mathilde Pailley (France)
Co-presented by Performing Arts Center of Penang
15-16 June 2018
penangpac stage 2
Review by Leng Poh Gee
At 8.20pm, I rushed to the theater once I knew that the performance was supposed to start at 8pm, not the conventional Klang Valley performance starting time of 8.30pm. Embarrassed, I tiptoed into the theater as I was told that the performance had already started. However the house lights were still on and I could clearly see both the audience seats and the stage. Two white screens were set up on the stage and two female dancers stood behind each screen, with only their shadows visible. Later during the intermission, I found out that I had not missed any of the performance; the 8–8.30pm slot was used for the audience to fill up questionnaires. Three questions had been asked: (1) What is your favorite daily routine? (2) What is the one thing that makes you happy? and (3) What would you like to change in your life? These three intriguing questions may have required the audience to take time to respond, but I was not able to fill up the questionnaire.
Fading house lights marked the real beginning of the performance. The dancers, Nathalynn Lim and Ashlynn Lim moved to the front of the screen, where they took turns to do gestures based on their text recitation, in a single dim spot that barely showed their faces or whole bodies. “What is right? What is wrong?” and “Decisions!” were the few lines that could clearly be heard. From gesturing the text mysteriously, until they pushed each other away forcefully, they competed between themselves through the accuracy of their fast-paced and aggressive movement. They used handy flashlights to light and to attack each other, which made shadows on the screens both from the front and back. Later, a third white screen on stage allowed the dancers to move around the maze-like stage, and to make more fun with their shadows; as the dancers mirrored each other in the front and the back of a screen respectively, one of them would stop and another go on. Selected dance phrases that portrayed their dynamic virtuosity and long line were repeated skillfully throughout the first scene. The performance was scattered with poem recitations by writer Abigail Chong, reading her works Decision Making and Exhausting which were also attached in the program note.
The second scene, based on much improvisation, was performed by co-choreographers Jet Leang and Mathilde Pailley. A box of audience questionnaires had been carried out. They randomly picked out questionnaires from the box and read them. However, their movement improvisation did not, in any way that I could see, reflect the purpose or any use of the written material. The two dancers created a sense of oppression through little connection with each other and no concrete relationship with the words that they read – perhaps this was the intention of the choreographers, to highlight the impermanence of “What is right? What is wrong?” and “Decisions!”. The lengthy improvisation which amplified their alienation from each other and from the questionnaires ended the first half of the performance.
Another intriguing stage set appeared after intermission. The screens were moved out and a reclined lighting bar with a row of lights attached had been placed upstage, with one end on the floor and the other suspended. From far, the reclined line of lights looked like a ladder. The energetic Nathalynn and Ashlynn returned, and danced unreservedly in the larger space. They repeated dance phrases from the first scene and developed variations through the manipulation of directions, levels, dynamics, relationships and floor patterns.
Smoky images were projected over the floor while they were dancing. A smoky burning match was a major image exhibited on the show’s publicity material, including poster and video clips. However, the use of such an image seemed less significant in the performance itself. But the duet was clearly a standout in terms of movement accuracy and large-scale travelling through space. Later, Jet and Mathilde joined the ensemble. The four of them crafted their transfer of weight smoothly, either in the form of duet, trio or quartet; they deliberately pushed, carried, supported, slid, flipped and flung each other around, all the while demonstrating safe dance technique.
Intense lights from the reclined lighting bar unexpectedly shone towards the audience. Later the lighting bar was lowered and placed flat on the floor: the stage was now equipped with a row of upstage floor lights. It was unfortunate that the unusual space structured by the reclined bar was not manipulated by the dancers as they did with the screens in the previous scene. Jet and Mathilde left the stage, leaving Nathalynn and Ashlynn. The duo seemed tired but still went all out. A trio was formed when male dancer Neoh Kai Jiun joined them. I knew Kai Jiun from when he trained casually in Dua Space Dance Theatre in Kuala Lumpur as a person with learning difficulties. This was the first time I had seen him dance and he moved just right, entirely appropriate to the scene – kudos to him as well as the patient choreographers and colleagues!
Quick and aggressive repeated single actions such as a punch or a dig towards the floor were frequently inserted into the recognized dance phrases from the first scene. The dancers needed a high level of stamina to persist in building up the tension of the performance. The strong actions of punching or digging with different rectangular floor light designs remind me of gravedigging. One by one, the dancers left the stage with their tired bodies. The performance ended with another poem recitation by Abigail Chong, which was somewhat unsettling due to the inconsistency of her presentation, either very passive or very melodramatic.
There were many uncertain signifiers throughout the performance which could perhaps be connected together: aggressiveness in the combination of movement-shadows-text, the pointlessness of decisions, the impermanence of right and wrong, the insignificance of the questionnaire survey, images of smoke, a ladder towards the sky, gravediggers etc… They all seemed to me like memento mori, the motifs in European Renaissance art that remind the viewer of the inevitability of death. Perhaps I may have been thinking too much and trying too hard to connect all the clues, in order to make meaning out of the performance, the title 22 a.m. – 65 p.m.? and the synopsis: “Arrive at the moment of 22 and pass the moment after 65, but what is in between?” Or perhaps the whole creation was simply an overplay of the artists’ isolation and anger, punctuated by fragments of technical virtuosity. The production may be inaccessible for audience who are new to contemporary dance. I think the several loose connections between dance and text/poem, improvisation and survey research, theatrical manipulation and theme interpretation shifted the production away from smooth dramaturgy.
I left Penang and drove back to Tanjung Malim at 11pm, thinking, as I often do, of how a newly established dance troupe can contribute to a local community. Thanks to my former students, producer Lim Siew Ling and program director Nancy Ng, who, although they are no longer dancing themselves, are still playing a part in enabling experimentation in new creations and training through Jet Leang Dance Theatre. Their intentions have inspired me, and I have high expectation for this newly launched troupe.
All photos courtesy of Jet Leang Dance Theatre.
Leng Poh Gee is a dance lecturer at Sultan Idris Education University, Tanjung Malim. He compiles comments from his wife and daughters after every performance.